6 Language Translation Errors with Shocking Outcomes

Translation is a distinct skill set that qualified professionals work hard to develop on an expert level. The ability to speak multiple languages is much different from being able to successfully translate from language to language.  Professional Translators Jost Zetzsche and Nataly Kelly illustrate this with a glimpse into the riveting world of translation through their book, Found In Translation.

When a translation mistake affects the world around it, it becomes clear that context and cultural nuance should never be overlooked when translating any type of content.  Here are 6 translation mistakes from Found In Translation that show just how important accurate translation of content can be.

1. In 1980, an 18-year-old named Willie Ramirez felt extreme exhaustion and was admitted to a hospital in Florida. His friends and family were able to describe his condition in Spanish, but the doctors could only speak English. A bilingual staff member finally translated the Spanish word “intoxicado” as the English word “intoxicated”, so he was treated as if he were suffering from an intentional drug overdose. During this ordeal, Ramirez was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage. A professional interpreter would have understood that “intoxicado” better translates into the word “poisoned,” as Ramirez’s family thought that he was sick from something he ate. This would have given doctors a better idea of his symptoms and how to treat them. But because the correct treatment was delayed from the misunderstanding, Ramirez was left quadriplegic and a lawsuit resulted in a settlement of 71 million dollars – a huge price to pay for one small mistranslated word.

2. During the cold war, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared a phrase in Russian that translated into English as “We will bury you.” Although it sounded like an aggressive threat to bury the U.S. with an attack, this literal interpretation was inaccurate. The Russian phrase translated more accurately along the lines of “We will outlast you,” which was much less threatening. The damage was done though, and tensions escalated between U.S. and Russia.

3. HSBC bank realized that its mistranslated catchphrase “Assume Nothing” actually encouraged people to “Do Nothing” in multiple languages. They were forced to launch a $10 million re-branding campaign to fix the damage.

4. A bad English translation of an article in the China News Service led to a panic in the world’s foreign exchange market after the article spread on the internet. The original article was a hypothetical summary of some financial forecasts, but the English translation made the article sound like China was going to devalue their currency. This led to a rapid decrease in the value of the U.S. dollar.

5. In 1840, the British Government and Maori chiefs in New Zealand came up with an agreement called the Treaty of Waitangi. It was created to protect the Maori from lawless people raiding their villages and expanded the British colonial territory at the same time. The problem arose after each side signed different documents because of inconsistent translation. The English version read that the Maori were to give up all rights of sovereignty to England, while the Maori version still gave the Maori the right to rule themselves. In the end, the English version stood true, yet the meaning of this treaty is still undefined generations later.

6. In 1977, President Carter visited Poland. The State Department hired a Russian interpreter who knew Polish, but was not used to being a professional interpreter in the language. The interpretation of Carter’s words included some very awkwardly translated phrases, such as “When I abandoned the United States,” instead of “when I left the Unites States,” and “your lusts for the future,” instead of the English phrase, “your desires for the future.” Needless to say, the media in both countries had a field day.

If these examples of language translation errors prove anything, it is that context and cultural nuance is extremely important when translating any type of content. When the stakes are high, it is important to have experienced and professional translators and interpreters on hand to ensure that it doesn’t cost you in the end.

About Global LT

Global LT, formerly Langua Tutor, was founded in 1979 and for over 35 years, our mission has been to empower corporate employees to live and work successfully anywhere in the world with our language and cultural training, translation and interpretation services as well as expatriate destination and global workforce talent development programs.

Headquartered in Troy, Michigan, with representatives in Boston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, London and Shanghai, Global LT employs over 100 corporate employees worldwide, with a dedicated network of over 2000 teachers, translators, trainers and specialists who deliver our services.

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